The Tattoo and Permanence in Body Modification

John Alan Follett
John Alan Follett

In its definition and also its application, the tattoo is permanent; this is to say it is a permanent body modification (Camphausen, 2000; Mercury, 2000; Millner & Eichold, 2001). If appropriately applied, it does not disappear through time, or “use”. It is the oldest and the best known of the different types of body modification (Hambly, 1925).

Different societies have unique forms of this process. Tattooing involves the injection of dye between 1/64th and 1/16th of an inch into the skin by an electric needle, injecting ink at the rate of 50 to 30,000 times a minute (Armstrong, 1991, p.216).

This is an exact and skilful operation. Many things can go wrong; if the needle is too deep, then pigmentation runs, leeching into the fat layer, or scarification can occur (Armstrong, 1991).

Tattooing is also by definition an invasive practice, this occurs through cutting, piercing, or introducing “foreign” objects to the body i.e. implants or ink etc. (Camphausen, 2000; Gilbert, 2000; Mercury, 2000).

While in tattooing, the modification is permanent (Camphausen, 2000; Mercury, 2000; Millner & Eichold, 2001), there are products which mimic a tattoo. These exist as both non-permanent and semi-permanent body modifications such as stickers, henna tattooing, and semi-permanent tattoos (Cartwright-Jones, 2003, 2005a, 2005b; Phoenix & Arabeth, 2003).

At one end of this range are “Temporary Tattoos” which are gained through using normal tattoo equipment and pierce the skin to inject ink which fades after a set amount of time due to special ink (English, 2000).

The next level of product is a temporary tattoo on top of the skin instead of underneath it. Methods include the use of ink and stamps; paint, airbrushes and stencils to create designs; and Mehndi or Henna (Cartwright-Jones, 2003; Phoenix & Arabeth, 2003), which is a subcategory of temporary body modification in its own right (Mercury, 2000; Gilbert, 2000; Phoenix & Arabeth, 2003).

This is an activity, which is based on Asian, Middle Eastern and North African ethnic traditions (Cartwright-Jones, 2003, 2005a, 2005b; Phoenix & Arabeth, 2003; Üstüner, Ger & Holt, 2000). These temporary/false tattoos come in the form of two different products, either a practitioner is paid to apply the design or self-use kits. Products come in varying quality, but all can be considered as activities, which are very closely related to tattooing.

Another form of temporary/false tattoo is a sticker or transfer, which is produced on a paper backing. These items are purchasable products themselves or freebies with other items (Tattoofashion.com, no date). These ― “tattoos” are associated with sweets and chocolate purchases and work by peeling off the backing, licking the design and sticking to an exposed area.

The last type of mock tattoo is clothing which looks like realistic tattoos, see-through sleeves, tights, women‘s panties, and body stockings (Cheeky Legs, 2006; Frog on Top Studios, 2007), however none of these are a tattoo and thus do not have the same social or cultural meaning due to the lack of permanence.

In relation to the “temporary” tattoos, which are applied in the same manner as “normal” tattoos but are marketed as fading after five years (HSE, 2003a), this is false, as any “tattoo” that inserts ink under the skin is permanent (English, 2000).

The only true temporary tattoo, (i.e. mimics but is not a tattoo) comes in two basic types, the transfer type (Bee, 2000; Mohammed & Nixon, 2000), and Mehndi or henna tattoo (Camphausen, 2000; Mohammed & Nixon, 2000; Phoenix & Arabella, 2003; Üstüner, Ger & Holt, 2000).

The difference is that a false or mimic of a tattoo can be removed without any remaining signs; the actual tattoo, however, cannot be removed without procedures that scar. Removal is a service which is as old as the tattoo itself (Gilbert, 2000; Jones, 1987), it occurs when tattoo is no longer wanted.

The oldest known variant of this service is from ancient Rome and required pigeon faeces in its creation (Jones, 1987), while the most modern variety of tattoo removal is undertaken through the use of lasers (Kupermanbeade, Levine & Ashinoff, 2001).

Both, however, have adverse effects of being painful and leaving scars, the Roman due to it being an astringent, while the laser burns the skin in its use and it is not able to breakdown blue and thus also green inks (Luisant Laser Tattoo Removal, 2006).

Other present-day ways of removing a tattoo are dermabrasion (Plastic Surgery Network, 2004) or incisive surgery (O‘Donnell, et al. 1995). These two forms are invasive, as they remove tattoos by removing the skin along with the ink and thus leave scars (Plastic Surgery Network, 2004).

They are only available via medical practitioners, are very expensive to undertake, and do not actually remove the signs of the tattoo, a mark will remain. The last form of tattoo removal is not exactly removal, but tattoo replacement, this in itself is not 100%, as the darkness of the inks within the original design will affect the type and effectiveness of the tattoo placed on top.

The urban myth of skin coloured skin that can be used for a cover-up similar to this activity is exactly that, an urban myth and does not exist (Sanders, 1985).

Thus the practice of tattoo removal is not by practice able to remove it in total; there will always remain an indelible mark, no matter what removal process used. This is why the socio-cultural position that the tattoo holds is unique (Parry, 1999; Scutt & Gotch, 1974), including its questionable moral existence and the dualism (feted/rejected) which is central to its being. In addition, it has, in some instances, the potential to exist beyond death (Capasso, 1993; Cockburn, 1980; Smith & Zimmerman, 1975).

The acquisition of a tattoo is analogous to the purchasing of any other product or service, the gaining of a tattoo relates to both high-involvement and low-involvement product purchase activities (Radder & Huang, 2008).

This investigation does not look at “why” or how the consumer decides to acquire a tattoo, what is relevant is the influence of permanence within the decision process. The difference between the two types is significant and relates to the level of attention, time, and energy dedicated to the pre-acquisition or exploration stages throughout buying process (Zaichkowsky, 1985, 1986).

Tattoo acquisition can come under either type of involvement, showing that the same product can have different involvement levels across people (Laurent & Kapferer, 1985; Zaichkowsky, 1985, 1986).

Involvement is an important issue due to the tattoo‘s permanence, and the physical and social risk involved in the activity of being tattooed (Aaker & Lee, 2001; Taylor, 1974). However, permanence or its resultant affects is not necessarily identifiable within the choices as some consumers do not even acknowledge the influence of permanence as it is not part of their choice, while others recognise the tattoos permanence (i.e. unable to be changed) and this effects of their choice, specifically in terms of involvement.

This is analogous to the view of Alba and Hutchinson (2000), in that, individuals can be familiar with the product (i.e. the tattoo) but lack expertise with the products effects (i.e. its permanence or its acceptability) that then affects their choices (Alba & Hutchinson, 2000), and in turn can create regret if the choices are based on misapprehension of the tattoo.

Thus, high involvement occurs when the tattooee takes time and effort to research the tattoo they wish to place on their bodies, i.e. the design; they also make themselves aware of the process of gaining a tattoo, what the physical action/interaction is involved (possible pain, healing etc.). This can be seen in the interaction both actual and potential tattooees, have online, swapping experiences, learning about tattooing in terms of the experience, its results, reviews of tattooists, choosing designs etc. (Mandel & Johnson, 2002).

Such use of digital decision aids to assist decision making (Häubl & Trifts, 2000) is an important to the choices of highly involved tattooees make, but similar activities have been an aspect since Victorian times when articles of such reviews of tattooist, explanation of tattooing and designs were made available in Journals and newspapers of the day (Bolton, 1899, 1902; Brooklyn, 1903).

Choice of tattooists which can also be seen in terms of relationship marketing (Sheth, & Parvatiyar, 1995; Martin, 1998), as exemplified in the trust imbued by the tattooist in the process and their abilities as a tattooist, which in turn makes the tattooee choose them (Sirdeshmukh, Singh, & Sabol, 2002). It is also seen in the process of choosing a tattoo design which occurs within an interaction with the tattooist (Sanders, 1985), from highly involved self-created designs to low involvement off the peg or “flash” originated designs.

It has been thought that it is the low involvement tattooees who make up the majority of those who regret their tattoo purchases (Sanders, 1988). In the expression the actual physical outlay, (i.e. pain) in relation to the tattoo can be considered an investment in terms of high and low involvement consumption activities.

Furthermore, in terms of tattooing, tattooees are analogous to consumers making value decisions, based on whether the aesthetic (Bloch, Brunel, & Arnold, 2003), (sub)cultural and physical investment of the tattoo “product” in relation to the permanent outcome of having a tattoo physically attached to themselves for the rest of their lives.

The permanence of this decision has an effect on the malleable or shifting self (Mandel, 2003) as it limits play in relation to physical identity.

The physical permanence relates to decisions about the overall finished aesthetic (Bloch, Brunel, & Arnold, 2003) and the cost/benefit analysis of how their acquisition is interacted with by the society(ies) or group(s) that they are a member of (Aaker & Lee, 2001; Escalas & Bettman, 2005), this too is linked to the creation of, or redefinition of identity.

In terms of a high involvement activity, the potential tattooee tries to make the best decision they can based on their own individual criteria.

For example, as the tattoo is analogous to clothing (Gell, 1993), specifically a permanent item of clothing (Gilbert, 2000), consumers frequently purchase a clothing item due to its symbolic meaning, which reinforces image or creates psychological satisfaction (Solomon, 1986).

In such terms, tattoos like clothes are identifiable in how the consumer reflects their consumer own social life, ambitions, desires fantasies and (sub)cultural affiliations (Kaiser, 1998).

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